Bold Hope for the World’s Poor

Map_of_the_world_1998

A Solution to Poverty?

If governments can’t solve world poverty, and nonprofits can’t make serious dents in it… can the private sector be the answer? With the help of you and me and major investors?

Mal Warwick thinks so. Warwick, co-author, with Paul Polak, of The Business Solution to Poverty, spoke recently at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco about their conviction that the long-term solution to the ongoing tragedy of global poverty lies in coming up with answers that will pay off. Not just to suffering individuals, by helping lift them out of poverty, but to investors by turning a profit.

Warwick’s audience included a variety of interested individuals familiar with much of the work already being doing by nonprofits whose funders tend to seek reward through humanitarian success rather than financial return. But major infusions of capital, Warwick maintains, will be needed to continue building the ladders people everywhere will need to climb out of poverty’s depths, and that will require – business solutions.

As a shining example, Warwick cited the treadle pump. It is a human-powered device, inexpensive to manufacture and simple to use, which enables farmers to multiply the yield of their land and thus, in many cases, raise themselves and their families out of poverty. It works as a business solution on a number of levels. Factories needed to manufacture the pump were set up in villages, providing employment for people there, village shops distributed them, workers were employed to drill the wells and financial institutions made loans for purchases.

The problem, Warwick says, was with marketing – radio, TV, newspapers and traditional advertising methods weren’t available. The solution? Roaming troubadors and a Bollywood movie.

Among the facts Warwick brought to light were: One billion people lack access to electricity. One billion people lack access to safe water. One billion farms are without irrigation. The 20 million people lifted out of poverty between 1981 and 2006 by international aid programs, Warwick says, are only a drop in the bucket to the numbers who continue to suffer.

“It’s possible,” Warwick says, “to create brave new companies” with the lure of “reaching at least 100 million $2/day customers.” Some of those companies already at work include Australia’s SunWater which is developing a variety of safe-water solutions, several businesses working toward turning organic waste into affordable charcoal briquettes, and SpringHealth, which is addressing the problem of contaminated drinking water.

If governments and nonprofits can’t solve global poverty, can businesses? It might take all of the above – plus you and me, ordinary citizens.

Transiency

The sad thing about John Updike’s being dead, other than the loss in general, is the loss in literary size. Like my #1 literary hero Reynolds Price, Updike could do it all: novels, essays, short stories, poetry, critiques, nonfiction, it was enough to make you want to hang up your computer forever. But the other thing, Updike being almost exactly my own age, is the timing. When I read his obituary I was just back from a trip east to give a eulogy for my greatly beloved sister Mimi (Updike was, in fact, exactly in between Mimi’s age and mine) and working on a eulogy for my also beloved old, old friend, JoAnn. Those being two eulogies too many for one young year.

Mimi had grown frail with a multiplicity of complaints in recent years, and did not have a lot of enthusiasm for a long decline. So when a cluster of strokes and heart attacks lifted her rather swiftly heavenward it was probably fine with her, if not good for the rest of us. JoAnn, though, was six years younger than Updike, a hearty, joyous soul who had survived breast cancer decades ago and a recurrence somewhat later. One night she sat down on the edge of her bed, readying for a night’s sleep. Some tiny something, a piece of plaque somewhere, broke off into her blood stream and the next moment she was dead. Most of us would sign up for this swift, painless exit, but not right now please.

Being very kind to one another has taken on a new urgency. Planes crash, fires and floods and earthquakes happen, people who are supposed to be here suddenly aren’t. Being kind, spreading a little ray of joy when you find one, noticing the smell of approaching rain – so the IRA has tanked and the stimulus package can’t be fathomed; still, maybe it’s worth paying attention to the smell of almost-rain.

A few blocks up Arguello Boulevard from our house, in the storied space that is now the Presidio National Park, sculptor Andy Goldsworthy recently created a breathtakingly lovely new work titled Spire. Made of trees felled in the effort to return the Presidio to its natural state, Spire is surrounded by newly planted young trees. As those trees grow, they will eventually cause Spire to disappear, blending back into the forest. It’s all a part of this mystical effort to keep the planet spinning as intended: forests come and go, the universe continues. Which seems quite a comfortable arrangement.

John Updike could have worked this into a darned good story.